Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Nicephorus Phocas and the Scythians

Scythian warrior on horseback.

Here we go again. I was not even looking for an article on Eastern Roman Emperor Nicephorus Phocas let alone Scythian barbarian invaders. But Google giveth many strange links.

I cannot find much background for the author of the article below. He appears to be Hungarian with an interest in early Hungarian invading tribes and their link to Byzantium. Well that's good enough for me. His article helps shed some light on a part of Byzantine military history that no one has really covered.

A near total lack of data.  When dealing with subjects like Napoleon, the American Civil War or World War II these events took place over a few short years, but we have literally mountains and mountains of excruciatingly detailed information to shift through. But when it comes to Eastern Roman history a century of barbarian invasions might, if we are lucky, get a passing mention by what passed for "historians" at the time. Meaningful details? Not gonna happen.

So this article helps shed some light on nearly ignored segment of Byzantine military history.

"Scythian" Barbarians

The question basically is "What is a Scythian?"

The Byzantines had something of a "if you have seen one barbarian tribe you have seen them all" attitude. The Byzantines had no interest in the fine points of different barbarian cultures. After all these invading barbarian tribes were all trying to kill Romans and conquer the Empire so what difference did it make?

In general the often nomadic peoples of the regions of modern Russia, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea were lumped together and called "Scythians" and in later times called "Turks".

These nomadic warlike peoples, were particularly known for their equestrian skills, and their early use of composite bows shot from horseback. With great mobility, the Scythians could absorb the attacks of more cumbersome foot soldiers and cavalry. Such tactics wore down their enemies, making them easier to defeat. The different Scythian tribes were notoriously aggressive warriors.

In the case of this article the Scythians were likely nomadic Magyar warrior clans invading from the from the region of Ural Mountains into Europe.


Nicephorus Phocas and the Scythians


Hungarians conquered the Carpathian Basin in the late ninth century. From there they conducted numerous campaigns to both the East and West in the course of the tenth century. However, while the western campaigns are well known in the Latin sources, the attacks against the Byzantine Empire, are mentioned in few sources. In the present paper, I would like to discuss a short source detail which have not yet been connected by historians to the Hungarians of the tenth century. 

Byzantine sources of the Hungarian history in the ninth-tenth centuries - thanks to the meticulous and all encompassing work of the renowned Hungarian Byzantinologist, Gyula Moravcsik - have hardly increased in number during the past decades. Recently, Ferenc Makk has collected the new sources concerning Hungarian history in the ninth-tenth centuries. He mentioned only one sentence in the work of Joannes Skylitzes that Moravcsik did not know of, which refers to tenth-century Hungarians. 

In 2009, István Baán drew the scholars' attention to a Byzantine diploma which mentioned the destruction of Hungarian troops in the Byzantine Empire during the tenth century. The number of new details is very limited. Thus any information - even if it is very brief - serves as a valuable addition to our knowledge of Hungarians in tenth-century history.

The Byzantine army of Asia Minor proclaimed Nicephorus Phocas as emperor in 963. He told them that they should expect a serious civil war. Previously they fought bravely against Cretans, Scythians and Arabs, but they now had to fight against their countrymen. The three examples of related events were certainly known to the soldiers.  

Emperor Nicephorus Phocas 
(from ‘Rulers of the Byzantine Empire’ published by KIBEA)
Emperor from 963 to 969. His brilliant military exploits resulted in the conquest of Cilicia and the re-conquest of the island of Cyprus from the Muslims. He conducted raids into Upper Mesopotamia and Syria. In the West he lost Sicily completely to the Muslims and faced Magyar raids deep into the Balkans.

Nicephorus Phocas' army invaded the island of Crete in the summer of 960. The besiegers conquered the capital city, Kandia, in 961. As a result of the victory, after one and a half centuries of Muslim rule, the island again fell under the control of the Byzantine Empire. 

Almost simultaneously, Nicephorus Phocas's brother, Leon Phocas took a part of the Byzantine troops from the Balkans to Asia Minor. Exploiting the fact that most of the Byzantine army was on the island of Crete, Sayf al-Dawla, the prince of Hamdanids carried out more attacks against the border of the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor. 

When Emperor Romanus II found out about this, he sent Leon Phocas, who previously had successfully defended the Balkans' border of the Empire, to Asia Minor fighting against the Muslims. Leon Phocas's troops defeated Sayf al-Dawla's army when they returned home with booty and numerous Byzantine prisoners on 8 November 960. In the course of the attack the prince barely escaped due to his ingenuity. Subsequently Leon Phocas went to Constantinople, which held a triumph in his honor. 

Following the successful campaign against Crete, Nicephorus Phocas continued the war against the Hamdanids. As a result, the capital of Sayf al-Dawla, Aleppo fell into the hands of the Byzantines in 962 with the exception of its citadel. It appears that the fighting against Cretans and Arabs which is mentioned in Nicephorus Phocas' speech refers to these two victorious wars. It is obvious that Nicephorus Phocas (or Leon Diaconus, who attributes the speech to him) wanted to refer to well-known, recent events in the case of the war against the Scythians.

Leon Diaconus used the Scythian name to indicate a number of peoples who lived then or at once in Scythia, north of the Danube area and the Black Sea. It was him who called the Bulgarians, the Hungarians and the Russians, and in general the peoples living in Scythia (which in some cases perhaps also included the Pechenegs) all Scythians. The question is raised, however, which of these peoples were defeated by the Byzantine soldiers?

Scythian Warrior

Bulgarians cannot be identified with these Scythians. There was peace between the Byzantine Empire and Bulgaria around this time, which only ended after the Nicephorus Phocas occupied the throne. Thus it is not surprising, that the collection containing the Byzantine sources of Bulgarian history does not mention the emperor's speech. Similarly, we know of no Russian or Pecheneg attacks in the 950s reaching the Byzantine Empire.  

Therefore it is most likely that by a struggle against the Scythians we are to understand Scythian invasion which was successfully beaten back by Nicephorus Phocas brother's Leon Phocas, according the Leon Diaconus' work. According the unanimous opinion of historians, the same event was reported in one part of the Vita Athanasii.w Leon Diaconus mentions that when a Scythian army crossed the Danube, Leon Phocas did not immediately enter into a battle with them because he had only a very small army, instead, he was waiting for the appropriate moment and he attacked the opposing camp at night. 

The Byzantine troops killed many of the Scythians, while many others were forced to flee. The Vita Athanasii mentions that Leon Phocas, who was the "commander of the West(ern affairs)" brought a serious defeat onto the Scythians. The identification of the enemy is very clear in this case. The Byzantine sources reported an ill-fated attack by a Hungarian army.  
This campaign could be identical with the Hungarian campaign which had reached the Byzantine Empire in 961. According to Theophanes Continuatus, Hungarian troops invaded the Byzantine Empire at the Easter of 961 (on 7 April, 961). Emperor Romanus II sent Marianos Argyros, who was the "commander of the West", to stop the attackers. The Byzantine general defeated the Hungarians, and forced them to return home.  

However, this view is hardly tenable. Scholars probably dated the Hungarian attack to be in the year 961 because this date was written on the margin of the text in the collection of sources. However, it is not the date of the fight against the Scythians: it only indicates that Leon Diaconus's second book discusses the events of 961. The Byzantine author only makes a brief mention of Leon Phocas's previous victory as the one that reveals his courage. However, Leon Phocas left the Balkans in 960. Romanus II sent Leon Phocas to Asia Minor, because the commander fought successfully against the Scythians. Thus, he could not be fighting the Scythians in 961 or later.

The Empire is Pressured on Three Fronts
Every morning the Emperor and his generals woke up in a nightmare. No matter where you looked there was always a new invasion or a military disaster and there were never enough troops to stabilize the borders or reconquer lost territory.
In the 9th and 10th centuries the Empire faced massive attacks on three fronts.  There were endless invasions by Muslims from Africa into Byzantine Italy where they conquered Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and established themselves on the mainland. The Danube frontier had totally collapsed with invading Magyar and other barbarian tribes thrusting deep into the Balkans. Then there was the non-stop warfare with the Arabs on the eastern front in Anatolia.

The Vita Athanasii mentions that Leon Phocas visited Athanasios after having brought defeat onto the Scythians. The source explains that first Athanasios met Leon Phocas, then he was tempted by the Devil for one year, afterwards he visited Nicephorus Phocas in Crete in 961. This also suggests that the campaign against the Scythians took place in or before 960 but not in 961. According to the Vita Athanasii, Leon Phocas fought against the Scythians as commander of the West. But in 961 it was Marianos Argyros and not Leon Phocas who occupied this position. 

Thus, it is obvious that Leon Phocas cannot have been fighting against the Scythians in 961. When did, then, Leon Phocas fight against the Scythians? And who were these Scythians?

Two Byzantine authors, Theophanes Continuatus and Pseudo-Symeon mention that the Hungarians (Turks) attacked the Byzantine Empire in 959. The emperor, Constantinus Porphyrogenitus, sent Pothos Argyros, the commander of a guardian army with general of Bukellarioi, Opsikion and Thrakesion, against them. The Byzantine troops attacked the Hungarians in the night and defeated them - just like Leon Phocas's troops in the story by Leon Diaconus. The Hungarian army was forced to return home. The details of the campaign: a night attack, the year 959, the enemies (Turks, Scythians namely the Hungarians) it creates an impression that Leon Diaconus, Theophanes Continuatus and Pseudo-Symeon reported about the same war.  

Some problems, however, remain. Theophanes Continuatus only mentions Pothos Argyros but not Leon Phocas in relation with the war to the spring of 959. According to Vita Athanasii, Leon Phocas was the „commander of the West(ern affairs)", but he was appointed to this rank by Romanus II, at the end of 959. Assumptions are necessary to interpret of the sources. It is presumable that since Leon Phocas fought at the eastern and western borders of the Empire in 959-960, the Vita Athanasii did not exactly follow the rapid changes of his titles, sometimes identifying him as commander of the West already during the spring of 959. In such a mistake, a bibliography of a saint would not be unusual to some extent. 

It is also possible that the Byzantine chronicles only accidentally fail to mention Leon Phocas in relation with the fight of 959 (perhaps he would be the unnamed general of Bukellarioi, Opsikion and Thrakesion). The other possibility is that the sources do not speak of the same campaign. If we accept that Leon Phocas was the commander of the West when he fought against the Hungarians (his brother, Nicephorus Phocas was the general of Anatolia at this time), then a Hungarian army again attempted to attack the Byzantine Empire in the beginning/ early summer of 960. So Pothos Argyros and Leon Phocas defeated two different Hungarian armies using the same tactics on two occasions

After Leon Phocas gained victory over the Hungarian troops (959 or 960), Emperor Romanus II sent the successful general to the eastern border of the Empire. But the Hungarian attacks did not end. Again a Hungarian army invaded the Empire in 961. Although these raids were beaten back by the Byzantine army, but Byzantine soldiers were able to experience how dangerous their enemy was. In 963 Nicephorus Phocas mentions three dangerous enemies: the Arab warriors on the island of Crete, the army of Hamdanids in Asia Minor, and the Scythians, that is the Hungarians in the Balkans. 

He tells the truth; Hungarian troops regularly attacked the Byzantine Empire at this time. Thus the short datum in speech of Nicephorus Phocas provides a piece of the colorful mosaic of the tenth-century history of the Hungarians. 

The Magyars successfully conquered the Pannonian Basin (i.e. what is now Hungary) by the end of the 9th century, and launched a number of plundering raids both westward into what used to be the Frankish Empire and southward into the Byzantine Empire.
The westward raids were stopped only with the Magyar defeat of the 
Battle of Lechfeld of 955, which led to a new political order in Western Europe centered on the Holy Roman Empire. The raids in to Byzantine territories continued throughout the 10th century, until the eventual Christianisation of the Magyars and the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Hungary in 1000 or 1001.  (More)

Magyar Warrior

(Hungarian invasions)      (chronica)      (Scythians)

(Nikephoros II Phokas)      (Magyar tribes)


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